Saturday, October 17, 2015

Roma Sparita. What people must know.

The Pantheon with the Bernini bell towers destroyed in 1883.

The Eternal City is not so “eternal” as one might believe. Since its annexation to the newly and forcedly created “Kingdom of Italy” in 1870, Rome has been vandalised by people completely unaware of the context - first the Northern Savoia and then Mussolini. In both cases, issues of compensation led to the elimination and the “death” of historical areas of Rome, areas that were well alive and full of Romanità; a sense of history, tradition, culture, melancholy that can still be found in certain areas, such as Trastevere or the Ghetto.

Palazzo Altoviti on the Tiber.

Nowadays, real Romans feel a great sense of nostalgia for this lost Rome, a city they have not had the occasion to know, but where their grandfathers lived or passed by from time to time, often with vivid memories of such splendid places. The real Roman who has not visited this place will still have a sense of familiarity, the real Roman will feel what those places would have been like and will feel incredibly melancholic… so I feel. Those who do not agree with this are often uncultured tourists who like the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II just because it is big, white and with flags, etc. Even proper archeologists and medievalists dislike the way ancient Rome was brutally unearthed in most places. We are not talking about Baroque alterations here, here we are talking about modern destruction that could be avoided. Areas that were once filled with lovely buildings and churches are now excavated and look like someone is temporarily working on something and then it will be covered again, it looks like a contemporary thing that will be filled with something beautiful, but it is not so. They are just ugly scars in our beautiful Rome. This is what makes me furious! In this brief post I will try to lead you into a journey in real Rome, an ideal Rome that was never supposed to be destroyed, so that most people will realise what was lost. We will start with the Savoias who started the fashion of destroying Rome whenever possible…

The Savoia destruction

The Tiber embankments 

In 1870 the Tiber once again flooded most of the city, therefore a new commission to arginate the problem in the future was created. Many ideas were found in order to prevent a future flooding, the best idea was that of creating exhaustion affluents in Umbria, where the Tiber could let the waters in other rivers when it got too big, of course the Savoias went for the destructive option: that of building high walls along the river in the centre of town, these walls that can still be seen today. 

The Tiber before.

The problem is that they are ugly, and especially they put an end to the relationship of Rome with its river, an historical relationship, now the river is a far entity one occasionally looks at. Once, it was home of splendid banks, with ancient mills, rowing clubs for Roman princes, marvellous loggias covered with flowers and massive palazzos with porticos ending above the waters, but especially two beautiful harbours; those of Ripa Grande and Ripetta, the second created a splendid Baroque illusion with the Spanish steps in the background, being of the same architectural style and giving a sense of continuity - this is all lost.

 The Ripetta Harbor.

Piazza Barberini and Via del Tritone

This piazza was mostly remodelled according to the Savoia “taste”, therefore much original buildings were lost, the Via del Tritone was also created, it involved the demolition of several houses and a church.

Piazza Barberini before.

The area where now is Via del Tritone with the demolished church.

Piazza Venezia

Piazza Venezia before the mutilations.

Perhaps the most destructive and sad of the mutilations occurred between the XIX and the XX centuries is certainly that of the area that now corresponds to the Piazza Venezia - the need for a piazza and a huge monument dedicated to the newly unified Italy, something that most cultured people still dislike today… urged the destruction of a very important neighbourhood. Today we might complain about the huge white monument, loved by tourists and hated by (art) historians, made in an alien stone for Rome, that of Piemonte, the same area from which the then Prime Minister came from, we all agree it’s incredibly ugly and representative of something forced on us by the Savoia dictators who imposed their rule with violence, oppressing different cultures and traditions wherever they got. However, what is most sad is the beauty and richness of treasures that this area used to have, where to start… what is now a Piazza was then the place where Michelangelo and Raphael’s follower Giulio Romano had their homes, where the beautiful Palazzo Torlonia was located and especially the beautiful Palazzo Venezia in all its glory, without the later demolitions, this palazzo had previously been papal residence and a narrow elevated passage, similar to Vasari’s one for the Medici in Florence, led to a tower, the Torre di Paolo III, that led to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Capitol hill and to its cloister, demolished to make space for the horrid white monument tourists love. There were picturesque narrow streets in the area, often with little bridges between the palazzos (in this case, that of the pope), perhaps the most charming characteristic was the small piazza between the Palazzo Venezia and Palazzo Torlonia that had a certain Medieval feel to it, like a Tuscan town so to speak. Of course, needless to say, all monasteries, churches and religious houses were confiscated by “Italy” when it was unified. Vive la liberté

This is what the area where the Piazza Venezia is looked like before the mutilations.

The piazza below Santa Maria in Aracoeli with the church of Santa Rita, which was moved near the theatre of Marcellus after the demolitions, it is now deconsecrated.

 The Aracoeli stairs and its cloister.

The house of Giulio Romano

The ghetto

The Portico d'Ottavia in the Ghetto before.

The Jewish Ghetto of Rome is one of the most characteristic areas of Rome, it was once much larger and now it corresponds only partly to the original one. Some Medieval houses, often made with ancient Roman stones, columns, sculptures still exist, the most charming of them still exists behind the Portico d’Ottavia and it even conserves the original door… There was one beautiful piazza that was demolished, known as Piazza Giudea, there was also Piazza Scòle, with a fountain commissioned by Pope Paul V with both the Borghese coat of arms and menorah. The Portico d’Ottavia hosted a little market and the facade of Sant Angelo in Pescheria, a small church dedicated to Saint Michael, the rest of the ghetto was also full of picturesque streets with Medieval houses, Gothic windows and Renaissance gates, the most famous were: Via della Fiumara, Via Rua and Via delle Azzimelle. At its peak the Ghetto Ebraico reached the Tiber banks, the excuse for the demolition of such an historical area was that of colera, apparently the area was too close to the river and there was an outbreak of colera recently in Naples… but there was never one in Rome, so this is just one of the many pointless ideas that mutilated Rome. In front of the portico there is a Medieval house that still gives us an idea of what the area would have looked like.

The Ghetto before the mutilations in the XIX century. 

This is my favorite building in the ghetto, it still exists and the wooden door along the stairs still exists, so touching.

Mussolini, “Il Picco Risanatore”

Piazza Montanara and Piazza dei Cerchi

 Piazza Montanara with the Teatro di Marcello

Between the Ghetto and the Capitol there was one beautiful square: Piazza Montanara. The piazza was located around the Theatre of Marcellus, which was then the Palazzo Orsini and was famous for its market, peasants came every morning to bring delicious food from the country, in an analogue way to that of Campo de’ Fiori. The Piazza was quite large and ended slightly before the church of San Nicola in Carcere.

San Nicola in Carcere in its Piazza, before the demolitions removed all the buildings around it.

One has to imagine that this piazza was located in a larger neighbourhood that reached the Circo Massimo and most of the Forum on the other side. There were plenty of Medieval houses in this case between the Piazza Montanara and the Piazza dei Cerchi which was located in front of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Places such as the so-called house of Cola di Rienzo or the Renaissance Church of Sant’Omobono and even the Renaissance monastery of Tor de’ Specchi had its own context.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Piazza de' Cerchi.

Piazza de' Cerchi and the Foro Boario with Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the background.

This area was completely destroyed in the 1920/1930s in order to make room for the Via del Mare, destroying those Medieval houses and churches such as Sant’Orsola and Sant’Andrea in Vincis. Today we do not have an idea of “Medieval Rome” while until less than 100 years ago, it was quite common even to live it! Now, what was once a lively neighbourhood is a dead access to the city, deprived of its own context, its piazzas and its life.

The area between Piazza Montanara and Santa Maria in Cosmedin before the demolitions. The two Roman temples (Foro Boario) had buildings surrounding them as well, they were removed by the Savoia.

The Largo Argentina and Corso Vittorio Emanuele

What is now known as Largo Argentina, due to its Medieval tower known as Torre Argentina is one other area of Rome that was greatly damaged in order to unearth Roman ruins. This area was also very picturesque and linked the ghetto, campo de’ fiori and the area near Sant’Eustachio with characteristic Medieval and Renaissance buildings, there was also a church; San Nicola de Cesarini, which was destroyed as well, in order to facilitate the archeological diggings. The mutilation of the Piazza begun with the Savoia, when they started the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, proceeding with their mutilations from the Largo Argentina to the Tiber bank in front of Castel Sant’Angelo via the Chiesa Nuova and the Palazzo della Cancelleria, where also several Medieval houses were destroyed, Mussolini started the archeological excavations in the Piazza instead, destroying the whole area. I cannot stand the fact that so much of Rome was destroyed in order to dig the remains of some Roman temple when there was so much built upon it. If there is one thing that historians know is that no history is more valuable than another!

San Nicola dei Cesarini and the lovely buildings in the area now occupied by Largo Argentina.

This is what the area where now Corso Vittorio is would have looked like before.

Piazza Sant’Andrea della Valle and the Corso del Rinascimento

The Piazza Sant’Andrea is only the result of clumsy mutilations that occurred along the Piazza Navona which survived only very luckily. The piazza that on one side has the beautiful facade of Sant’Andrea della Valle and on the other a horrid Fascist building opens the Corso del Rinascimento, a street that goes along the Piazza Navona. In order to create it, a large abitato was destroyed - here we had more examples of Medieval, Renaissance and even Baroque houses, like those attached to the complex of La Sapienza University and those at the end of the Corso, near Palazzo Altemps and the back of Piazza Navona which was luckily spared. The biggest loss here was that of the Piazza Madama in front of the Madama palace and the loss of most of the nave of the beautiful Renaissance church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli. The result is of course Fascist: dead and sad…

Piazza Madama, 1930, now Corso Rinascimento.

La Sapienza University and the facade of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli.

The Forum

Houses near the Coliseum on the border of town, when the Forum was a lively neighbourhood.

The area that led from the new Piazza Venezia to what was then the Forum was filled with narrow streets in a very Medieval fashion, there were also memorable buildings, such as the house of architect Pietro da Cortona, the Piazza Macel dei Corvi, the Palazzo and Palazzetto Venezia with its aerial bridges and a certain number of ancient houses that reached the borders of Rome, the countryside: 

Piazza Macel de' Corvi, in what was the neighbourhood above the Forum.

What is now the Via Nazionale, the border was signed more or less by the church of Santa Caterina in Magnanapoli. The area which is now occupied by the Forum was a lively neighbourhood, linked to Monti on one side and by Piazza Venezia on the other - this group of buildings had a great view on the Campo Vaccino which was part of the Forum, between the Coliseum and the Capitol Hill, between this neighbourhood and that of between Piazza Montanara and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and also on the Medieval buildings near the Market of Trajan, on the other side, this whole abitato reached, though Monti the area near San Clemente. 

An aerial view...

Of course, in the 1930s Mussolini had to destroy this as well, making a great fuss about it, apparently it was not enough that the best part of the forum was already unearthed… The point of unearthing the rest of the Forum makes no sense, since he built a big promenade in the middle of the area, covering part of the Forum. Of course, all the people living here were sent to horrible neighbourhoods in the outskirts of the city! Thanks to this dictator this is also a very sad and dead area now. At the time one could have a nice walk from Santa Maria in Cosmedin, to the Ghetto, to what corresponds to Piazza Venezia now, to the abitato which occupied the Forum, going all the way to San Clemente. It is known that there were plenty of restaurants and bars in these areas, now there is nothing, it is in fact a very unpleasant place to visit…

This is what a stroll in this area would have been like, this is what has been lost...

Piazza Augusto Imperatore

Another unattractive area of Rome is that near the Ara Pacis, Via del Corso and Via di Ripetta, which is filled by huge Fascist buildings and ugly, large, empty piazzas… Here there was a lovely Baroque / Rococo neighbourhood. The main mutilation was that of the Via Ripetta, that continued all the way in front of the church of San Rocco which was located on the Porto di Ripetta, previously destroyed by the Savoia. All of this is gone too…

The area before the demolitions.

Spina di Borgo

The spina as seen from the dome of St. Peter's.

The Piazza as seen by the spina.

The last but not least of the Fascist mutilations of Rome is that which created the Via della Conciliazione: the street that leads to St. Peter’s from Castel Sant’Angelo. These blocks of buildings were called Spina di Borgo, because it had the shape of a spine and it created continuity between the sides of what is now the Via della Conciliazione. There were important Renaissance and Baroque buildings, giving a context to still surviving palaces such as the Torlonia and the Della Rovere but are now gone… the biggest loss is the Piazza Scossacavalli with the Church of San Giacomo a Scossacavalli, the supposed altar of the temple of Solomon and the stone where Jesus stood when he was presented were located in the church, they were brought here by Saint Helena herself. The fountain by Carlo Maderno that was located in the Piazza is now in the Piazza Sant’Andrea della Valle. This neighbourhood created a great continuity with what now remains of the Borgo. The point of the spina was that of Baroque sense of theatre, one would have found himself in narrow streets, only to end up in the huge St. Peter's square, where a sense of awe would have caught even the least sentimental person. As in all the precedent cases, this was a lovely, lively area which is now dead, thanks to the 1930s mutilations. I dare that anybody who comes to Rome will have a walk here or in any of the aforementioned places just for pleasure.

The spina as seen from above.

Piazza Scossacavalli, with the Carlo Maderno fountain now in the Piazza Sant'Andrea della Valle.

San Giacomo a Scossacavalli, the Baroque church with the relics brought by Saint Helena in its piazza during a flooding.

The entrance of the spina.


What happened to those who lived in these houses? The Fascists deported them to newly built slums in the outskirts of the city, with no hospitals, markets or schools. Not many remember this. All I can say is: this is one tiny example of what the unification of Italy brought to us. If this has no effect on you, you are not a Roman and you do not deserve to be one. 


  1. That is an amazing post, with so much scholarship behind it. Well done!